Hugh Howey

Subscriptions are in the news this week


Subscriptions for ebooks are certainly in the news this week. Amazon just announced their Kindle Unlimited offering, taking its place beside Oyster and Scribd as a “one price for all you can eat” Netflix- or Spotify-for-ebooks program. And the Book Industry Study Group has released a lengthy and fact-filled report from Ted Hill and Kate Lara covering subscriptions across publishing segments.

It is hard to quarrel with the report’s contention that “subscriptions are here to stay”. The report makes clear, and documents extensively, that there are a great variety of ways subscriptions can be offered and that tools making it easier to manage them are becoming cheaper, better, and more ubiquitous. The report suggests that subscriptions could occur for as narrow an offering as one author’s works. As technology enables subscription offers to be economically viable with less and less revenue, the tendency for more and more publishers to want to “own” their customers, combined with the tendency for publishers to build up their intellectual property inventory in an audience-centric (vertical) way, either organically or by acquisition, it is easy to see how they could proliferate.

When I have expressed skepticism in the past about the commercial viability — or commercial importance — of subscription services, my intention was (is) to confine my skepticism to broad-based services like KU, Oyster, and Scribd. In other segments, the viability of the model is obvious. Safari has operated successfully for a decade-and-a-half. Journal publishers figured out in the 1990s that selling annual access to the whole catalog of their publications, including backlist, was an opportunity presented by digital delivery because of the value of being able to search across the catalog. The science-fiction publisher Baen has had an apparently successful subscription offering for years. And patron-driven acquisition, which the BISG report calls a form of subscription (loose defining, to be sure), allows a publisher’s whole catalog to be exposed to a library’s patron base with purchase decisions to follow (rather than patrons only being able to see what a library had already bought) just makes sense for everybody.

But the consumer ebook business is a different animal and it is far from obvious (to me) that a model can be constructed that will satisfy all the stakeholders and provide profits for the model owner. But the pieces are certainly in place for us to find out.

It is clear from the catalogs presented by KU, Oyster, and Scribd that the jury on subscriptions is still out because big publishers are still reluctant to participate. No Big Five house has put books into Kindle Unlimited. Only HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster are (as yet) participating with Oyster and Scribd. Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and Hachette have — so far — held out. What those houses do in the next few months will tell us a lot about how likely the concept of the broad-based ebook subscription is to succeed in the future.

The BISG report surmises, and I agree, that only PRH could possibly deliver a general subscription offer on their own. I “predicted” some time ago that they would. A top Random House strategist tried to set me straight on that some months ago. This person asked the rhetorical question: “why would we want to turn $1000 a year book customers into $100 a year book customers?” Last week, an even more senior executive, recalling that s/he had read this speculation from me told me directly and assertively, “we aren’t going to do that.” (Random House executive Madeline McIntosh is quoted in the Hill-Lara report issued by BISG saying “Many people who are buying our books today are spending more than they would with a subscription.  If that amount starts to dip, then subscription services will become more interesting to us.”)

These people are straight shooters. I believe them when they describe their current intentions. But what if Scribd and Oyster and KU build big subscriber bases? And what if those subscriber bases tend to buy fewer books outside the subscription offering? It is in a publisher’s DNA to push books into any channel that will take them. They have resisted the subscription offers so far because they don’t want to empower an aggregating intermediary the way Amazon is now empowered (which is why KU has the hardest time pulling big publisher books into its aggregation) to beat them down on terms. This is good forward thinking if staying out stops the subscription services from reaching viability. But what if it doesn’t? How long can publishers refuse to participate in revenue opportunities for their books and authors?

The offers (as we understand them) by Scribd and Oyster, and in other ways by Amazon, have been very generous. Scribd and Oyster are apparently paying 80% of the cover price (to the big agency publishers; others don’t get that deal) once a book is deemed “bought”, which requires a threshold amount of the book — often suggested to be 10% for the Big Houses, which is where Amazon put the bar for Kindle Direct Publishing authors within Kindle Unlimited — has been perused by the subscriber. (Not everybody gets that deal either.) 

Amazon presumes the right to include books in Kindle Unlimited from its wholesale trading partners (everybody but the Big Five), but it considers the ebook “sold” when it is cracked, a far more generous interpretation of when a book has been consumed. (Nor is that deal for everybody. For authors and pubs participating in KU via KDP Select, the threshold for a “sale” is 10% like Oyster. Then they are compensated from the “KDP Select Global Fund”.) The introduction of KU and the various terms around it have been met by initial grumbling in Amazon’s indie author community, according to both Publishers Lunch and Hugh Howey.

Agents will be seeing what the subscription revenues mean to their clients. It will be harder for them to get a handle on whether those subscription services are cannibalizing regular per-copy sales, but they will have ample information from which to form opinions about that as well.

Part of what holds back the big publishers from participation in subscriptions is a fear that agents share. Today Scribd and Oyster offer 80 percent of cover price, and Amazon pays the minute an ebook is opened, because that’s what they have to do to get books in their service. And the books in the service are what bring in the subscribers.

But if one of these services has a million members three years from now, each individual book won’t be quite as important anymore. Just as Amazon can get along without maximizing their sales of Hachette books today, the subscription owners will see a different, and lower, value for each book and each publisher then. Amazon gambles today that the customers of theirs who don’t find the Hachette book they’re looking for will often just buy something else rather than go shop somewhere else. Their own subscription lock-in, PRIME, shifts the odds in their favor there.

Amazon will be in this game to stay. Offering Kindle Unlimited is relatively painless for them. They have the books and they have the audience; it is just another way to keep their customers loyal. The big questions for the industry are whether Oyster and Scribd succeed in taking a substantial number of single-purchase customers out of the market and, if they can, whether they have a sustainable model with the prices they charge customers and the way they compensate publishers.

If what they have works for them, then all publishers will eventually have to play. That will mean that HarperCollins and S&S will be joined by Hachette and Macmillan. And despite what their executives tell me today, I’d bet a steak dinner that Penguin Random House will see more opportunity and less risk in creating their own service than in joining one of the existing ones. In fact, a Penguin Random House “backlist only” subscription offer today would constitute the most robust commercial assortment in the marketplace if it existed.

It has seemed to me for a long time, and I said in a public forum over a year ago, that all the Big Five (and others) should immediately create a subscription service for kids’ books. Parents want their kids to be able to “shop” without actually delegating to them the decisions to spend money; many would love a service of this kind, even if it were publisher-specific. As the support services Hill and Lara describe get cheaper and better and better known, perhaps that will start to happen.

We will cover subscriptions at Digital Book World with a panel chaired by Ted Hill. Scribd and Oyster have already agreed to participate.

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Much as I like Hugh Howey, I disagree with just about all of this recent post of his


I need to say couple of things at the outset here. The first is that I really like and admire Hugh Howey and the fact that I disagree with almost every paragraph of this post of his shouldn’t suggest that I don’t. That’s not snark or irony; it is sincere. I think it is both noble and natural for people to defend the entities and circumstances that make possible their commercial success and it is just human nature that those who have benefited from a paradigm reflexively want to defend it. I only wish that Hugh would exhibit the same respect for that tendency when it is exhibited by authors who have done well with publishers.

The other is that I don’t see the “Amazon versus the publishing establishment” battle as a moral choice, just a tug of war between competing business interests. (There are societal questions at stake, which some might see as moral choices, but the companies involved are doing what is best for them and then arguing afterwards that it is also better for society.) When I wrote what I intended to be a balanced piece about the Amazon-Hachette battle, it brought out the troops from the indie author militia in the comment string to call me to task and accuse me of many things, including being a defender of the people who pay me (although my overall revenues from Big Five publishers is actually pretty paltry with not one active consulting client among them for well over two years). I expect this post will do the same, which I find an unpleasant prospect. On the other hand, I’m sorta stubborn about saying the things I believe nobody else is saying…

I am not trying to “make a case” here for anybody: not for the publishers and obviously not for Amazon. All I am trying to accomplish is to call out what I see as the almost certainly unintended bias in the arguments as Hugh frames them. I continue to believe that self-publishing is a useful tool that most authors should employ at one time or another but that, still almost all of the time, an author who is offered a publishing deal from a major house willing to pay an aggressive advance is better off to take it than go it alone. (If you’re not offered a substantial advance, the calculus shifts, but there is a lot of work involved in self-publishing that is not described in much detail in this post, even though Hugh Howey knows much better than I do how much work it is!) And I think that generalized advice to authors to eschew publishers in a world where print still matters and stores still matter remains, as of today, unwise. That may well change in the future, but it hasn’t changed yet.

In this post, everything preceded by [HH] was written and posted by Hugh Howey. Everything preceded by [MS] is my response. I have left nothing out from Hugh’s original post.

[HH] A few weeks ago, I speculated that Hachette might be fighting Amazon for the power to price e-books where they saw fit, or what is known as Agency pricing. That speculation was confirmed this week in a slide from Hachette’s presentation to investors:

HachetteLivre-Investor-Slide

So, no more need to speculate over what this kerfuffle is about. Hachette is strong-arming Amazon and harming its authors because they want to dictate price to a retailer, something not done practically anywhere else in the goods market. It’s something US publishers don’t even do to brick and mortar booksellers. It’s just something they want to be able to do to Amazon.

[MS] Uh, yes. It is something they want to do in the market for ebooks that they don’t need to do for print. And it is something they want to do to the entity that controls 60% of their ebook sales, which no print bookseller does. And you’d be forgiven if you got the impression from this that Hachette only wanted to control the price Amazon sells at, not the price everybody sells at, keeping it the same across retailers. It does matter how you frame things…

[HH] The biggest problem with Hachette’s strategy is that Hachette knows absolutely nothing about retail pricing. That’s not their job. It’s not their area of expertise. They don’t sell enough product direct to consumers to understand what price will maximize their earnings. Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple have that data, not Hachette.

[MS] But what Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Apple know is not how to maximize Hachette’s or Hachette’s authors’ “earnings”, however they get divided between author and publisher. What they know is how to maximize their earnings and, mainly, their market share. And only Amazon and B&N have any picture of how the interaction between ebook prices and print sales works, which deeply affects an author’s and publisher’s earnings. None of the other ebook retailers have a clue about that, and Amazon doesn’t know how bookstore sales are affected (and it would be their objective to have them affected negatively, wouldn’t it?)

[HH] Beyond their ignorance of pricing strategy, Hachette also has a strong bias toward print books. Their existing relationships with major brick and mortar retailers gets in the way of their e-book pricing. This has been confirmed by my own publishers, who have admitted privately that they would like to experiment with digital pricing but don’t want to upset print book retailers. This puts their pricing strategy at odds with their investors’ needs, their authors’ needs, even their own profitability. In sum, they are making irrational decisions with their pricing philosophy. Hachette is making the same mistake that many publishers make, which is to think that harming Amazon somehow helps themselves.

[MS] Publishers are trying to keep a print book physical distribution infrastructure alive. That’s not irrational. It is rational. And it is the crux of the difference in objectives between a publisher’s strategy and Amazon’s strategy. The more bookstores fade, the better it is for Amazon and the worse it is for publishers. This is a problem you could have read about on this blog a long time ago.

[HH] The same presentation by Hachette to investors stressed the importance of DRM and the need to fight piracy. The presentation had very little to say about authors, which would be like an oil company giving a report to prospective investors and not discussing how its current wells are performing, the proven reserves it has on-hand, and what they are doing to discover new sources of oil. You know . . . the product they make their money from. Little is also said in the presentation about readers, possibly because Hachette doesn’t know who their readers are. Again, this is a presentation to investors by a company that doesn’t know its customers. Because they have too long relied on and been beholden to middleman distributors.

[MS] I’d substitute “leveraged” for “relied on and been beholden to” in the sentence that concludes that paragraph. Up until very recently, there was no efficient means or mechanism for publishers to sell directly to readers. Their “customers” were bookstores, and they understood them very well. And all the big publishers I know are investing in learning more about who are their readers. This graf begins with the complaint that authors aren’t acknowledged by publishers and ends with the complaint that publishers don’t know their readers. And the cherry on top is a biased characterization of the value and role of brick and mortar retailers. I guess the oil company reference is just to associate bad people with each other, but it otherwise seems gratuitous. The important and relevant point is that we’re still waiting for the first major author to say “no” to a publisher. It will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

[HH] DRM, piracy, and high e-book prices are not what a publisher should be fighting for and bragging to its investors about. Many consumers aren’t even aware that Amazon isn’t the source of their e-book DRM. Publishers (and self-published authors) opt in or opt out of DRM as they see fit. Those of us who think about the paying customer first and foremost opt out, and we are rewarded with their repeat business and their advocacy. Those of us who don’t fret over piracy invest our time where it can actually achieve something. Publishers need to adopt these same policies with all haste. More importantly, they need to stop ripping off their authors and their customers when it comes to digital pricing.

[MS] Recent data suggests pretty strongly that taking down pirate copies increases sales. But the efficacy of DRM is a good debatable point and it shouldn’t be in a paragraph that concludes with a gratuitous slam at big publisher pricing and royalties, which have nothing to do with DRM.

[HH] We know publishers are ripping off artists and readers when it comes to e-books. Harpercollins released this slide one year ago this month:

Harper-NewsCorp-Profitability

As author Michael Sullivan broke down in this damning blog post, it shows publishers making $7.87 on a $14.99 e-book while the author only gets $2.62. For a hardback that costs twice as much at $27.99, the publisher makes $5.67 to the author’s $4.20. What used to be a fair split is now aggressive and indefensible as publishers make more money on a cheaper product while the author makes far less. Publishers are ripping off readers and writers as they shift to digital, and they are getting away with it. They are even winning the PR campaign against Amazon, a company that has fought for lower prices for its customers and higher pay for its authors.

[MS] I agree that ebook royalties should be higher. But, in fact, only authors who sell their books to publishers without competitive bids (which indicates either “no agent” or “limited appeal generated by the proposal”) are living on that 25% royalty. The others negotiated an advance that effectively paid them far more than that. And guaranteed it before the book hit the marketplace. Publishers are making a massive PR error not raising the “standard” royalty since they effectively pay much more than that now, but the authors signing contracts with them know the truth.

[HH] Let me repeat: Publishers are waging a war here for higher prices and lower royalties. $14.99 is their ideal price for an e-book that costs nothing to print, warehouse, or ship. That’s twice what mass market paperbacks used to cost, which is what they are replacing. Reminds you of how cheaper-to-produce CDs suddenly cost twice as much as cassettes simply because they were new, doesn’t it?

[MS] Now, who’s not paying attention to authors? Right, it cost nothing to print, warehouse, or ship an ebook. But it cost something to create. And for many, if not most, publisher-published books, the publisher gave the author a substantial payment before publication. Focusing on the price without considering the value is the grossest form of “ignoring the author”. And the $14.99 price is more like the equivalent of the hardback; most publishers I know charge much less for the ebook when it is being published against a printed version that’s a paperback. And, in fact, they often charge less than $14.99 when the print edition available is a hardcover!

[HH] Publishers are also colluding with one another to offer lockstep digital e-book royalties of 25%, which is indefensible. Their every actions, when it comes to DRM, to pricing, to selling direct, to offering abusive services like Author Solutions, screams to anyone with ears that they don’t care about the writers and they don’t care about the readers. It doesn’t matter what they say, it matters what they do. And what they do is charge as much as they can get away with and take as much of the split as they possibly can. And they work with their competitors and against their retail partners to pull it off.

[MS] Publishers live in a competitive marketplace in general but nowhere more than when it comes to signing authors. The 25% hasn’t moved, but every book that is signed based on a competitive situation (one agent told me that’s at least 2/3 of them; one big publisher believes they compete for 95% of what they sign) is getting an advance that is calculated on a much higher percentage than the “standard”. So they “care” about the writers. If “caring about readers” is only demonstrated by low prices, then I’d say “Hugh has a point.” The problem is that the point is in direct conflict with “caring about the writers”, whose revenue is directly related to what readers pay (with only one exception: unearned advances paid by publishers).

[HH] Their own authors defend them, partly because they don’t spend any time investigating or understanding the business in which they are engaged. One Hachette author — a good friend of mine — said something to me the other day that made me realize they don’t understand how their books are ordered by retailers or delivered by the publisher. I suppose it’s okay to write books and not worry about the rest of the business, but this same author and friend had much to say about the Amazon/Hachette dispute, but without the basic understanding of how the relationship between those two companies works. Part of the blame for not knowing falls to publishers, who keep authors at bay and away from the business aspects of publishing. It was one of my primary complaints in that old blog post. Publishers need to embrace authors as business partners, and any author who hopes to make a career at this needs to be at least a little curious about how the industry works.

[MS] This slam at Howey’s fellow authors is both uncharacteristic of him and beneath him. The Hachette authors are doing precisely the same thing Howey is doing: defending their biggest source of revenue. What’s so surprising about that? And let’s not get too worked up about what people do and don’t understand. This piece demonstrates very little understanding of the economics of brick-and-mortar and the overall effort to sustain it as long as possible.

[HH] So we can see in their own slides that publishers do not have the best interests of their artists and consumers at heart. What about Amazon? Here we have a company that forsakes profits in order to pass along the savings to: A) Readers in the form of lower prices and to: B) Authors in the form of higher pay. That’s what we know today based on their actions. Of course, some interpret Amazon’s behavior as: “Once they are big enough, Amazon will gouge customers and take advantage of authors.” If you press on numbers, you might hear that Amazon will raise e-book prices to $12.99 one day and pay authors a miserly 25% of gross. Both of which are better than what publishers offer right now.

[MS] The pricing and split speculation is a pure straw horse. We know that what Amazon does today that pleases Howey also serves their larger strategic interests: growing market share and building the installed base of Kindle users. It’s nice when interests align. But what happens when they align tells you nothing about what will happen when they don’t. The recent changes that reduced author splits from Amazon-owned Audible shouldn’t be ignored in a paragraph like this one. (Emphasis here: I don’t think Amazon was wrong or immoral to have done this, but I think those making the argument that worrying about terms changing in the future is silly should at least acknowledge what has already happened!)

[HH] This bears repeating: The very worst that Amazon might do, in some hypothetical future, according to their fiercest critics, is still better than what publishers brag to their investors about doing today.

[MS] And this bears repeating. It’s a straw horse. The argument is attributed to these unidentified “fiercest critics” because it a straw horse. Pure speculation. Who knows what is the “the very worst that Amazon might do”?

[HH] Instead of operating under the hope that publishers will improve their business practices in the future and that Amazon will reverse course and start harming writers and readers once they gain more market share, why aren’t we condemning publishers for being the problem right now while celebrating Amazon for all they are doing to expand reading habits and to provide for artists? Why?

[MS] Simple answer. Because many authors are still being very well paid and well served by publishers. That’s why.

[HH] I think two reasons: The first is that we equate publishers to bookstores and Amazon to the loss of bookstores, and we all love bookstores. This is fallacious reasoning, though. Online shopping has impacted all of retail. These changes were inevitable, and they are the result of consumer choice. How those changes played out could have been publishers colluding with a distributor to price digital works higher than their paper counterparts. That would have been bad. Amazon leading those changes with their pricing philosophy has been good.

[MS] Much of this is true. Online shopping is inevitable; the pressure on brick-and-mortar is inevitable. And we all love bookstores, even though they don’t “map” into the future very well. But it is really disingenuous to just forget that Amazon benefits by brick stores going down faster and has discounted print books as aggressively as possible as well, which has contributed to the brick-and-mortar stores decline. I’m not demonizing Amazon over this; everybody has to run their own business and they run theirs very well. But let’s not pretend that altruism is all that is working here, or that changing circumstances couldn’t change Amazon’s pricing philosophy.

[HH] The second reason for the anti-Amazon bias is that some see Amazon as the giant and little old publishers as the underdog. That’s also wrong. The publishing and bookselling arm of Amazon is likely smaller than the combined earnings of the Big 5 publishers. Amazon makes a pittance on every e-book sold, while the Big 5 make out like bandits. Also, to say that these wings of Amazon’s operations are owned by a larger entity is to ignore that the same is true for the major publishing houses. If anything, Amazon is the clear upstart and underdog here. They are new to the market, rapidly innovating, blacklisted by brick and mortar retailers, setting up shop away from the established players, and ganged up on in an illegal manner.

[MS] No question Amazon gets “ganged up on”. We have two book businesses now: Amazon and everybody else. Everybody else includes publishers and retailers and wholesalers and agents and established authors. Amazon’s decision to “make a pittance” on certain products, including some ebooks, is tactical, not altruistic. I have to admit that characterizing Amazon as an “underdog” does activate the “gag reflex”. If this doesn’t qualify as hyperbole, I’m not sure what would. Let’s be clear and real: Amazon and Hachette are both leveraging their respective negotiating positions as best they can. It’s called business. (And,, from where I sit, it looks Amazon is in the stronger position, not Hachette. I’m not sure by what measurement Amazon could be considered the underdog here; I haven’t read any other analysis that makes that claim.)

[HH] I’ll go one step further and state something both outrageous and obvious: If the Big 5 had gotten together twenty years ago and DREAMED UP an ideal business partnership, one that would increase their distribution, provide excellent customer service to their readers, improve the livelihood of their authors, keep their backlists viable and books from going out of print, reduce their 50% return rate from bookstores to 4%, provide next-day and even same-day delivery, all while only costing them 30% instead of the 45% they lose to bookstores, they couldn’t have done better than what Amazon did for them.

[MS] Lots of truth in this paragraph, up to a point. Publishers (and authors) have benefited for years from Amazon’s willingness to sell books for almost no margin and by the shift from the less-efficient sales in stores to the more-efficient sales online. I spelled out clearly in my Amazon-Hachette post that Amazon has been the most profitable print account for most trade publishers for a long time. And I am happy to give them the full credit they deserve for making the commitment necessary to make the ebook business happen. That doesn’t change the reality that as their market share grows, we can see a concentration that changes what has been a good thing into a threat. For everybody else in the book business: those who are aware of it and those who are not.

[HH] Soak that in. Publishers should have engineered Amazon from the ground-up. A company that invests in distribution networks for their products rather than pocketing profits. And instead of celebrating all the hundreds of benefits, like pre-orders and customer reviews and the savings on print runs and returns that Amazon’s algorithms provide, they are trying to figure out how to put their best resource out of business. It boggles the mind. Like those authors who fear Amazon might take royalties away tomorrow, so are happy to give up those royalties today, publishers are siding with companies that are hurting them today out of fear of their greatest ally getting even more market share tomorrow. And readers and writers are the victims of this illogical behavior.

[MS] The unreality in the suggestion that publishers are trying to put Amazon out of business is mindboggling. I have cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I believe Hugh Howey believes what he says. On the other hand, I can’t believe he believes that! Any publisher that thought this was possible would be deluded. The idea that it is some sort of deliberate strategy to put Amazon out of business is as far from the world we actually live in as the world of Hugh’s novels is.

[HH] What is the solution? As a writer, the solution is to retain ownership of your rights. This has never been more important than it is today. E-book royalty rates are going to move to 50% of net. I know from some insiders that this is already happening for top-name authors and hot new acquisitions. Selling your manuscript now for half of what it will be worth in the very near future is a bad move. It takes years for books to come to market with a traditional publisher. If that is your publishing goal, exercise a bit more patience. Hold on to that manuscript (or self-publish it) while you write the next. Let the market come to you.

[MS] This advice ignores the fact that a large number of authors got an advance that already pre-paid them for the royalties they could conceivably have earned by doing their own self-publishing when the publishers’ sales died. (Those “insiders” referred to are almost certainly talking about how the ebook component is calculated for advances paid to big authors, not a change in the contractual percentage.) Howey is conflating agreeing to a “half of what it should be” digital royalty with “selling your manuscript for half of what it will be worth” in the future. They’re not the same thing. I guess it’s just part of the campaign to find that first big author who turns down a publishing deal to do it themselves instead. To read this post, you’d never know we haven’t had one yet! (I thought we had one three years ago, but the one author who really threatened to do it changed his mind and signed a publishing deal with Amazon instead.)

[HH] The other option is to embrace a smaller press that has more flexibility. Online print book sales and e-book adoption have helped level the playing field for small publishers. They are becoming more viable every single day. These are the true Davids. They now have the tools and ability to see their works sell to a wide audience and win awards. I put them as the second best option behind self-publishing, and I include Amazon’s imprints in this category. They offer higher royalty rates and terms similar to small presses, though some have grumbled lately that Amazon’s imprints are becoming more and more like the Big 5, so watch what you sign.

[MS] I’m always happy to see smaller presses succeed, but they have a hard time competing against the Big Five, mainly because of Amazon. They are forced (by Amazon) to sell their ebooks on “wholesale” terms, which means giving much more of the retail price they set to the supply chain. This leaves them two choices. They can set a reasonable retail price (like an Agency price) and get nearly 30% less revenue than an Agency publisher. Or they can set an artificially high price and hope the retailer will discount from it. So even if they give the author a higher percentage of ebook sales, the net might not be higher. It is hard to succeed in today’s environment as a small press, not easy.

[HH] For readers, keep doing what you’re doing. Self-publishing and small presses are booming because you care about great stories, not where they come from. You are the disruptive force in this industry, and I say that with every ounce of love I can muster. Keep disrupting by doing what you do best: Read. Write reviews. Share your enthusiasm. Infect others. Spread the joy of this greatest of pastimes. And we will trust that those who cater to your needs and to the needs of the artists you admire will be the ones who come out on top. All others will need to change their ways or perish. If they do the former, let’s cheer for them. If they persist in the latter, let’s not be sad to see them go.

[MS] I am not happy to see anybody go. The desire to make villains out of the industry establishment is the most unattractive trait of what should be a hero class: intrepid authors who forge ahead without institutional support to make success happen. There is no doubt that Amazon has made that opportunity possible for most of them and it is easy to understand why anybody who has profited from the infrastructure Amazon created would celebrate it and want to see it grow. But author success has been achieved in a wide variety of ways and the way Hugh Howey has done it is still very much the exception, not the rule. We shouldn’t leap to conclusions from unusual cases. And I think it is an iron rule of nature that it is dangerous to generalize from one’s own personal experience.

I see from a subsequent post of Hugh’s that he will be in Toronto this week at Book Summit, as will I. I hope we’ll have a chance to have a Diet Coke and talk about this while we’re up there. My Logical Marketing Agency partner Pete McCarthy and I are kicking off the show on Tuesday morning. I always love visiting Toronto.

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Getting Mark Coker right this time and agreeing with him up to a point


On Tuesday, for the first time in the five years I have been writing this blog, I did a post I would like to take back. (But in the interest of the public record, and because there were several comments of value, I’m leaving it up.) This is the post that I should have written the first time.

Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, wrote a Huffington Post piece in which he asserted that indies are now responsible for 15% of the ebook market in dollars and on their way to 50% by 2020. The initial post of mine misread Mark, and assumed that the 15 percent and 50 percent claim were about units, not dollars. Mark set me straight, but, unfortunately, that other post focused on trying to translate what I thought were unit shares into dollar shares. Sorry…

At first I had thought I agreed with Coker’s overall numbers, because I thought an estimate that indie ebooks were 15 percent of the total units was reasonable, rising to 50 percent in six years. But dollars are another story. (Note: Michael Cader’s independent examination of the numbers determined that indie/self-published ebooks were, at most, 11 percent of the ebook dollars and probably less. Cader’s generous calculations put the unit share percentage at about double that, in the low 20s. I believe his logic and numbers would also support my view that it is something less than that, which would put me near to Coker’s dollar estimate for my units estimate: about 15%.)

If indie ebooks were 15 percent in dollars today, then they would be 30 or 40 percent of units because they are priced so much lower than publishers’ ebooks. Is that possible? I suppose it is. I thought in the middle of last year that in the aggregate indies sold the number of units equivalent to one Big Six publisher, but not anything like 30+% of unit sales (even though Howey’s examination of 50,000 Kindle titles led him to assign 27% of the units sold to indies.)

If they are 30 or 40 percent of units, and nobody I know has read any, does that suggest a cohort of people who really prefer indie ebooks and read them in big numbers? And if indie readers form a “separate” market, is it growing or is it static? In other words, do indie ebooks draw on a particular pool of readers, so that we have two separate competitions going on for eyeballs and ebook sales?

We note a piece this morning at Good EReader that calls for the segregation of the self-published titles at ebook stores, because their sheer number interfere with discoverability for publishers’ books. That’s bound to be an unpopular idea in many quarters, but it is something that could happen if any one retailer offers it as a choice to consumers (which is the way to do it: as a filtering choice, not a hard-wired default). If consumers liked it in one place, the practice could spread.

Regardless of whether there is one competition for readers for all books or separate ones for indies and publishers, wouldn’t we expect the flood of titles to make it harder for everybody to make sales? (This is a point that Peter Turner brought up in the comment string to the prior post.) Chances are, yes. And that could mean even more authors will be forced to go indie because publishers are likely to respond to a shrinking market and more challenging discovery by reducing their outputs.

But it is also true that more challenging discovery means more skill doing it and more tools to reach customers have value. So the ability of established publishers to have “better odds”, to get their books to rise above the “noise” of a large title output, should improve (relatively) over time.

Coker did a great service to all of us putting the ebook sales indies achieve into a larger perspective. And, in doing that, he might even have understated the current case for their importance.

What Coker did was point out that the 15% ebook dollar share for indies was within the estimated 30% of the market that is ebooks, 70% still being print. Doing math with his share number, he concludes that self-published ebooks are taking 4.5% of the dollars in the overall market. I’d put them at somewhere between half and two-thirds of that.

But, in fact, the 70% of the market that remains print contains a lot of titles that have very little, even no, ebook sales at all. These are illustrated books or reference books or even kids’ books that have not worked commercially in a digital version. We don’t know how much of the 70% of books that are print are “readerly” books that are equivalent to the 30% that sell in ebooks, but it isn’t nearly all of them. I think it would be conservative to assume that non-readerly books constitute 25% or more of the 70% of the market that is print, which would divide that portion of the market to be 52.5% books that have commercially viable ebooks (the 30%) and 17.5% books that don’t.

So the 30% ebooks overall is really more than 35% for the books that are real ebook candidates (and probably nearer 100% for most of the indie ebooks which would have limited or no print sales). In other words, the ebook share for the books that can work as ebooks is already a bit bigger than an overall summary would suggest. But, despite that, indie ebooks are somewhere in the low single digits as a percentage of industry revenue.

I think that’s very important to keep in mind. Indie ebooks are not yet commercially important if we think about consumer dollars. (But, of course, as Hugh Howey and Coker point out, the author keeps a lot more of those dollars.)

There are two big questions going forward.

1. How fast will the indie self-publishing ebook market continue to grow at the expense of publishers who do it for profit? (All of the calculations from Coker and Howey about the benefits to indie authors assume they do it themselves, not through some new-fangled indie-first publisher or aggregator. If they do it through anybody else, new or old, the author share will decline. Every participant takes a cut.)

2. For any individual author, how does the decision of whether to do it themselves or sign with a publisher look?

On the first, I think one key question is whether we now have a bifurcated market: one group of people reading the bulk of indie books and another group reading the bulk of published books. There is certainly reason to believe that we do, although this is something that only the retailers really can know for sure.

I believe we do have two markets. Part of that is genre-driven. Many readers who habitually consume romance, thrillers, and sci-fi have found less expensive digital-first and author-published alternatives perfectly satisfying. They read lots of units. So it is likely that a concentrated cohort of readers is responsible for a big chunk of the indie books.

(There is probably a third market because we know there are also bargain shoppers. Though traditionally-published titles are discounted, there are still price bands where the indies largely own the marketplace.)

If that is the case, then indies compete with indies more than they do with publishers. And since we believe that a big part of indie sales growth will be driven by indie title growth, it could be that the sales will have trouble keeping up with the titles. That would mean the path to success for each individual indie author would get harder.

Note that this would not affect a self-published author who had built a name and a brand by being published first, except to the degree that self-publishing gets handled differently by retailers or that discovery metadata is not as professionally produced. In general, the distinction between authors who had publisher help building their brand before going indie and those who created success from a standing start has not been underscored as much as it should be in these discussions.

And that leads us to the second point. As Coker has pointed out in his piece and in the comment section of my previous post, some authors like to have “control” of their process. As print books become less and less important, those authors have more and more inherent reason to be attracted to a self-publishing model.

I believe that those authors who like “control” are already more ubiquitous in the self-publishing world than in the overall population of commercially-capable writers. It stands to reason that they would be early adopters of the digital self-publishing opportunity. My hunch is that most authors want to write, and to let publishers handle their business. They don’t want to do the administration and marketing work necessary to self-publish. And that’s even before they get to the difference between getting paid in advance for a book and having to spend money to put a book out.

But it is also true that the deals we see today are not necessarily forever. Publishers have held the line on 25% of their revenue as the author ebook share (apparently with some limited exceptions and, of course, situations for big authors where unearned advances effectively deliver higher royalty rates on everything). If they have to raise royalty rates to keep authors, they probably will. E-only publishers and digital-first imprints at traditional houses are already establishing new standards. Amazon just reduced the author take through their Audible subsidiary. Will the day come when they decide to take a bigger share of indie author ebook sales? Why not?

Authors will have a shifting set of commercial propositions to consider, along with their personal preferences for “control” or “help”. And that’s before we get to other things not reflected in any comparison of what they earn from a self-published ebook versus a publisher’s ebook: print revenue, unearned advances, and having somebody else doing a lot of work on your behalf.

So while I largely agree with Coker’s 10 trends that will lead to enormous growth in the number of indie-published ebooks we will see, I think a grain of salt is needed about how economically significant they will be either for the industry at large or for the vast majority of individual authors following that path even though they are bound to grow quickly. It turns out that the previous post started out with a misunderstanding that led me (and therefore my readers) on a wild goose chase but, in the end, the headline message was right. Even over the next few years, the changes we’ll see around how authors get their work to their readers are more about evolution than revolution.

As it happens, The Great Debate at the London Book Fair is about whether big publishers or small publishers will “win” over time. Ken Brooks of McGraw Hill Education and I have the “big” side; Stephen Page of Faber and Scott Waxman, who is both a literary agent and owner of an ebook publishing house called Diversion, tout the “small”. Michael Healy of CCC moderates. If you’ll be at LBF, check this out.

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Sometimes one more calculation can make what looked first like revolution resemble what it really is: evolution


Author’s warning: this post is largely wrong! The following post was written based on a fundamental misunderstanding, assuming that Mark Coker’s post was talking about ebook sales in units when he was talking about dollars. 

So while there are some insights that may have value, the post is mostly wrong.
 
I am leaving it up because I have to admit to my errors (this is the first time in five years I have had to do this), and because there were some useful comments. (And who knows? We may get more.) I will write another post (and here it is!) reflecting on Mark’s in the next couple of days, this time giving observations based on a correct interpretation of what he says in his.

Mark Coker, the creator and owner of Smashwords, very likely the biggest service-provider (after Amazon) for ebook creation and distribution for the self-publishing community, wrote an article on Huffington Post today with the headline prediction that independent publishing could be responsible for 50 percent of ebook sales in 2020.

While Coker does engage in some red meat slinging that will please the indie author and publisher cohort that is his bread and butter (painting a Manichean view of heroic indies on one side who believe their growth is inevitable and the blinkered establishment on the other side that considers the indie view “delusional”), his methodology is sound and his predictions are pretty reasonable.

But, unfortunately, Coker’s analysis stops one calculation short of painting a meaningful picture. And that calculation is the one that counts. Literally.

Coker figures that the current share in 2013 of ebook sales garnered by indies is 15 percent. He posits that print is 70 percent, so the indie ebook share gives them about 4.5 percent of the total market. That’s correct, if you are talking about units sold. And that’s where he stopped, but shouldn’t have.

Because indie ebooks generally are priced between $0.99 and $2.99 (although some have pushed that to $3.99 lately), and publishers’ ebooks are generally priced from $7.99 to $14.99, what Coker calculates omits an important reality. We’d have to guess what the multiple should be to translate unit share into dollar share, with publishers’ books listed anywhere from three to ten times, or even more, over where indie ebooks are priced. I’ll guess that a multiple of three times is a conservative estimate, taking into account that publishers’ prices are often discounted by retailers. (And I hope Coker would agree with me which I think is possible because on the numbers he stated, I agree with him!)

If 3x is the right multiple (and it is a lot less than the 5 to 1 ratio Hugh Howey found at Amazon for traditional publisher dollars over indie dollars), then indie ebooks really amount to around one-and-a-half percent of the book market by consumer spend. More than six years into the ebook revolution (if dated from Kindle, which is where I’d begin), that’s not a number that would justify the strutting of the indie ebook advocates and the slamming (and frequently predicted demise) of the publishers.

Of course, Howey and others have insisted that calculating consumer spend is getting the question the wrong way around from the authors’ perspective. What matters, they would say, is what share of author earnings fall to independent authors. And it is, indeed, likely that the well less than 2 percent share of consumer dollars would be a poor proxy for author earnings because sometimes (but not nearly always) authors make more money on a lower-priced ebook than they would have from a publisher’s sale of a higher-priced ebook (or a print book.)

The problem is that we have no way to make that comparison. We can’t actually calculate published authors’ earnings from sales and contractual percentages because we know that published authors get a lot of money in unearned advances. And we don’t know what indie authors earn either; it isn’t the frequently-bandied 70 percent of the consumer dollar all the time. (In fact, it isn’t 70 percent all the time even on Amazon.) With the price differential and many indie ebooks selling at 99 cents with the author getting about 35 cents of that, my hunch is that published authors actually average more cents per unit sold than the self-published do. At the same time, published authors are getting their take calculated on the price from which the retailer discounted, a higher price than the selling price. That means their royalty on the selling price is higher than even knowing the contractual terms would lead you to guess. And that is before you even get to accounting for unearned advances. So even getting 4.5 percent of the units would probably give them no more than 2 or 3 percent of the royalty dollars. And almost certainly that 2 or 3 percent is divided among far more authors than the 98 percent that goes to the published.

The heart of Coker’s piece is a checklist of reasons why the indie ebook share will increase. Most of those make a lot of sense. And his ultimate conclusion and prognostication, which is that ebook unit sales will be 50 percent indie by 2020, is not crazy. Maybe it will be 40 percent. Maybe 50 percent will come in 2023. But surely over the next few years the indie share of the total is likely to get bigger and the publisher share is likely to get smaller, even though publishers and other big players will increasingly be providing services to indies and alternative ways for them to work with established publishers on something other than the advance-against-royalties basis that has been the industry standard for many years.

But even then, we’re probably looking at something that is more like evolution than revolution. If indie authors have 50 percent of the ebook units by 2020, they’ll probably have half of 50 to 60 percent of the total market, assuming that print sales slip from 70 percent today to 40–to-50 percent in six years. If indies sold half of what might be a 60 percent ebook share of the market, they’d have 30 percent of the unit sales. But the pricing differential will still exist. (If it goes away, then indie sales won’t grow so fast.)

That means that, even by 2020, and even accepting indie champion Coker’s calculations, indie ebook sales will be around 10 percent of the dollar volume of the book business. And their share of total author revenue will be more impressive, perhaps in the teens, but still divided among far more authors than the much bigger number going to the published.

These calculations are not intended to disparage the indie writing and publishing community (most of whom get significant help from very big companies, starting with Amazon, to make them possible). It is intended to provide a reality check. The industry is still run by the establishment, and it will be for the foreseeable future. There are expanding opportunities for independent action and it is the right course for many authors, but the idea that we’re about to see some total reversal of fortune can be, and often is, wildly overstated.

As it happens, The Great Debate at the London Book Fair is about whether big publishers or small publishers will “win” over time. Ken Brooks of McGraw Hill Education and I have the “big” side; Stephen Page of Faber and Scott Waxman, who is both a literary agent and owner of an ebook publishing house called Diversion, tout the “small”. Michael Healy of CCC moderates. If you’ll be at LBF, check this out.

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Comparing self-publishing to being published is tricky and most of the data you need to do it right is not available


I have a certain pride of discovery in super-successful indie author Hugh Howey. It was nearly two years ago that I learned about him on a trip to LA to organize a conference that didn’t happen. The Hollywood grapevine told me about his novel-of-assembled-novellas, Wool, which was a sudden major self-publishing bestseller and that he had a movie deal. I got in touch with him and his agent, Kristin Nelson, and learned that he was making $50,000 a month in royalties, and had a host of foreign deals as well as the movie deal. Meanwhile, the publishing establishment couldn’t come up with an offer that would sensibly entice him to give up his indie revenues. I read his book and loved it and then had many interesting exchanges with Hugh and Kristin, which resulted in them appearing on the Digital Book World program in 2013, 13 months ago.

He’s a terrific guy who has achieved a phenomenal success and maximized it in a very clever way. But I think he’s a much better author and self-promoter than he is a business analyst.

At the beginning of the year, Howey offered his advice for publishers which reminded me of an old saw of my Dad’s, which was “when I was a kid, everybody wished their father owned a candy store.” Hugh’s advice for publishers is to eliminate things that annoy him (non-compete clauses, length-of-copyright licenses, New York City offices) and to lower prices, give away ebooks with hardcover purchases, and pay authors monthly.

Now, none of these things is necessarily a bad idea, and some of them will almost certainly come to pass, at least for some authors in some contracts. And I remember when Wiley moved from 3rd Avenue to Hoboken that they figured they got a competitive advantage of permanently lower rent at very little sacrifice of efficiency. But none of them are things a publisher would do just for the hell of it; they’d have to see a competitive advantage or a competitive necessity. The piece he wrote advising the publishers (which he addressed to HarperCollins but which he meant to be generic) didn’t even attempt to prove that these changes were either commercially advantageous or necessary.

But giving this advice to HarperCollins or any other big publisher is not dangerous to anybody’s health. Unfortunately, Hugh’s latest business inspiration — a call to arms suggesting to independent authors that they should just eschew traditional publishing or demand it pay them like indie publishing — is potentially much more toxic to consume. (The agenda here is unclear. Is Hugh most interested in getting more authors self-publishing or in organizing authors to demand better terms from publishers? It’s hard to tell, but there is an agenda, it would seem.)

The long story short is that Howey analyzed a bunch of Amazon rank data (apparently a single day’s worth, 1/28-29/2014, which has so many obvious problems associated with it that all by itself it raises questions about what of value can be gleaned) and from that extrapolated some breathtaking (and breathless) conclusions that go way beyond what the data could possibly tell anybody. The analysis purports to compare how authors do self-publishing versus how they’d do with a publisher and comes to the conclusions that they make more per copy on average self-publishing and maybe even sell more and make better books to boot. (For much more and better analysis of the data biases, I’d check Dana Beth Weinberg’s post on this subject. Her objections and my objections have very little overlap.)

My problem with the whole exercise is that there is a long list of relevant facts not included in the data and therefore ignored in the subsequent analysis:

1. Author revenue from print sales.
2. Getting an advance before publication versus having costs before publication.
3. Unearned advances and their impact on author earnings.
4. Getting paid for doing the work of publishing which goes beyond authoring.
5. Current indie successes where the author name or even the book itself was “made” by traditional publishers.
6. Rights deals.
7. How well Amazon data “maps” to what happens elsewhere. Is it really projectable?
8. The apparent reality: flow of authors is self- to traditionally-published, not the other way around.
9. Publishers can raise royalty rates (or lower prices) when it becomes compelling to do so.

Each of these could be a big or small part of the story, but every one is relevant.

1. Author revenue from print sales. Authors not only make a lot of money on print sales, but print in stores (as opposed to printed copies available through Amazon) is also a marketing element. This all still matters. In a comment on Howey’s site, one author estimates her Amazon sales as anywhere from 10% to 30% of her total sales. Obviously, for some other authors it is a lot more than that, maybe north of 70% of their sales. Which kind of author are you? And if you’re the kind selling mostly on Amazon, is that an inherent characteristic of your appeal or a deficiency in your non-Amazon distribution?

2. Getting an advance before publication versus having costs before publication. Although Howey cites one author who turned down an advance to self-publish, those stories appear to be few and far between. I was really struck by one such author announcing nearly two years ago that he was doing this, but, in the end, that author took a publishing deal — not a self-publishing deal — from Amazon. And the size of the advance is also a consideration that Howey’s analysis doesn’t touch on. It can’t, because that data — however relevant — isn’t available. (But then, can you draw valid conclusions without it?)

 3. Unearned advances and their impact on author earnings. Unearned advances are a substantial part of author compensation. I know of one Big Five house that calculates that they pay more than 40% of their revenue to authors and another which says that number is in the high 30s. That’s not all digital, some of that is print with manufacturing and warehousing and shipping costs associated with the revenue. How can you compare how authors are compensated if you don’t calculate the benefits to authors, meaning the resulting higher percentage of the revenue they’ve taken, of unearned advances? That relevant data is also not available.

4. Getting paid for doing the work of publishing which goes beyond authoring. Frankly, the biggest omission to me is the eliding of the costs — in time and money — of doing the work the house does for an author. Howey mentions that editors and cover designers can be hired. That’s true, and good and competent ones too. But is a good writer necessarily a wise chooser of an editor or of a cover design? How much does it cost if you don’t get the right one the first time? (We know publishers aren’t perfect at these jobs either, but they’re bound to be better most of the time than somebody who hasn’t ever done it before.) And is that how you want to spend your time? Authoring is a job but doing the work of self-publishing is also a job. And it entails real risk. Advising a writer to self-publish without considering these things is like telling somebody who’s a good cook that they might as well just open a restaurant.

5. Current indie successes where the author name or even the book itself was “made” by traditional publishers. Another factor any author self-publishing has to consider is the likelihood of success, which is much greater if the books are backlist (have some fame in the marketplace) or even if just the author has been previously published. Successes like Howey’s, from a total standing start with no prior writing track record, are quite different from others who have reclaimed their backlists and used them as a platform to build a self-publishing career. Now, that data could be obtained. Wouldn’t you like to know how many of the “indie authors” at various income levels were cashing in on what was originally publisher-sponsored IP and how many started from scratch? (It’s more challenging, of course, to assemble the data by the author rather than by the book.) But I sure think it would be necessary to understand before drawing conclusions about who should self-publish.

6. Rights deals. Howey himself has benefited from having a stellar agent who has made foreign and movie rights deals for him across the globe. (She even made a print-only deal for Wool with S&S.) Yes, you can (if you’re lucky) do this like Howey did: finding an agent to represent his self-published material. But that’s another thing to find and manage that comes with the deal (and the advance check you get to cash) if you do a deal with a traditional publisher (although, admittedly, you would probably have had to find the agent in the first place, and self-publishing could be a way to do that.) Nonetheless, you get more rights-selling firepower on your side if you’re with a publisher.

7. How well Amazon data “maps” to what happens elsewhere. Is it really projectable? A massive flaw in the analysis is the biased nature of the data. Amazon’s sales profile is not the same as the market as a whole. (One day of data isn’t a projectable sample either.) One agent pointed out to me that they are weak at selling mass-market fiction, for example, and that their ebook sales tend to the fresh and new, so they don’t get a bump when a mass-market paperback comes out. But we can be pretty sure that Amazon sells ebooks more successfully than the market as a whole, because Kindle has the biggest installed base and Amazon has the most book customers. This bias of sample is compounded by the focus on genre fiction. No matter how big a percentage of those niches is served by Amazon, it is important to remember that it is where they are relatively strongest in relation to the big publishers. If we were comparing literary fiction or biographies — both of which have lots of worthy authors too — the chances are the cost of an Amazon-only distribution strategy, or an ebook-only distribution strategy, would be far higher. And the chances of success would be far lower.

8. The apparent reality: flow of authors is self- to traditionally-published, not the other way around. But I think part of the motivation for this piece was frustration in the indie author community at the fact that many of the best ones get signed up by traditional houses, who view indie publishing as a farm system, and very few established authors will actually turn down an advance to go indie. They’ll reclaim their backlist and self-publish it, or do a short ebook on a subject that is timely and can’t wait for print or be made longer. But there has been very little evidence that I am aware of that publishers are having wholesale difficulties getting authors to come aboard with them on a traditional deal.

9. Publishers can raise royalty rates (or lower prices) when it becomes compelling to do so. Which brings us to the final point that I think is relevant and ignored. As Howey and others have pointed out, the early days of ebook publishing appear to have been good for publisher margins. They can afford to give authors more. (In fact, I encouraged them to do that before their accounts come after them for the extra margin in a post nearly three years old.) But they’re not going to give it out of some spirit of generosity or because Hugh Howey (or Mike Shatzkin) thinks it would be a good idea. They’ll give it when it is a competitive necessity to do so.

So my advice about Hugh Howey’s advice is simple. Totally ignore it if you’re not a genre fiction author; there’s precious little evidence or thinking in it that applies to you. And if you are a genre author, be very clear about the extra work and extra risk you take on in order to get some extra margin. Both will be required for sure whether the extra margin materializes or not.

Self-publishing is definitely an incredible boon to commercial writers and they should all understand how it works. Increasingly, literary agencies see it as their job to provide that knowledge.. It is almost certainly a good idea to self-publish for many writers who have reclaimed a backlist that has consumer equity. It is a perfectly sensible way to launch a career, either before going after the commercial establishment or as a part of the strategy to engage with them. (Editors in the big houses are well aware of the self-publishing successes; it’s a new farm system.) If an author has access to markets, it can be a better way to get short or very timely material to them faster. But to say it has its advantages and applications is a far cry from saying that it is a preferable path for a large number of authors who could get publishing deals.

I can’t “prove” this so I won’t try, but it bears further emphasis that it still looks like the number of authors who start as self-published and then get “discovered” by the establishment and switch over is still larger than the number of authors who say “keep your stinking advance” and turn down a deal to do the publishing themselves. None of the parties involved is stupid — not the traditionally-published authors, nor the self-published authors, nor the hybrids — not even the publishers. And they might not be evil, either. As for self-interested debaters, they exist on all sides.

PS: I HATE long comments. If you disagree with me and want to use my space to make your case, please be concise. (And frankly, although I also prefer you to be concise if you agree with me, I’m made less cranky when I get long-winded support.)

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Nine places to look in 2014 to predict the future of publishing


The digital transition of the trade book publishing business, which I would date from the opening of Amazon.com in 1995, enters its 20th year in 2014. Here are some of the ponderables as we close out the first two decades of a process of very rapid change that is far from over.

1. What’s going to happen with retail shelf space for books? The market for the kind of narrative reading that comprises the bestseller lists has gone anywhere from half to three-quarters online, ebooks and print combined. The rate of movement has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped. It has now been two full years since Borders shut. Barnes & Noble continues to close stores as leases expire. Independents are, anecdotally, reported to be holding their own, but they’re definitely challenged to deliver on the online component and, so far, the successes have depended on individual entrepreneurs running good local stores, not any formula that is replicable or scalable. When will we see a stable “floor” for bookstores, a sustainable foundation from which year-to-year fluctuations won’t persistently be down? I don’t think it will be in 2014, but it’s the most important bunch of tea leaves to read for some segments of the business.

2. Illustrated book publishers are likely to be the most attentive of all to the bookstore shelf space question. Six years into mass ebooks (as dated from the Kindle) and three years into good hand-held delivery of graphics (as dated from the iPad), the digital version of illustrated books have not found the market that the digital version of novels have. The illustrated book publishers learned to be global over the past four decades, so many have avenues to market that aren’t changing as fast as the US bookstore network has. But the reduction-in-shelf-space line on the graph or the sales-of-these-books-as-digital-products line, or both, have to start moving in the opposite direction or there’s a major problem brewing in that very large segment of our business. Will 2014 be the year that somebody cracks the code for delivering how-to or art-book material in a digital form that will replace shrinking print revenues?

3. As 2014 dawns, we have a host of ebook retailing models that deviate from what the book business has always done: sell one book at a time for a price for which the starting point of reference is one set by the publisher for that book. Safari, created by O’Reilly and Pearson, showed a subscription model more than a decade ago but it was for professional books. 24symbols, based in Spain, is a sort-of granddaddy of this business in the trade segment, being about three years old. They are joined by Oyster, a new start-up dedicated to ebook subscriptions and Scribd, an old start-up originally dedicated to being YouTube for documents. And Entitle, formerly called EReatah, has a slightly different subscription proposition that is more like a “book-of-the-month-club” in its structure. An even newer start-up called Librify has an offering for reader-organized book clubs in the offing. Amazon already has a lending library for its PRIME subscribers, which amounts to the same thing, and a subscription of content for kids on Kindle Fire. With so many experiments in play, we ought to get a picture by the end of 2014 of the degree to which this model appeals to consumers and whether the economics are enticing enough to get big authors and big publishers to play with more enthusiasm than they have demonstrated so far.

4. It is accurate, but misleading, to describe the Penguin Random House combination as a merger of “two of the big six”. It is actually a merger of the two biggest of the former Big Six, and it creates a publisher that is nearly as big as the four others combined. So we now really have a Big One and a Following Four, rather than a Big Five. The big question is what PRH can do to apply what is a huge difference in size as a scale advantage. The hunch here is that proprietary distribution channels can be created by a company that controls approximately half the most commercial books in the English-language world. Whether that will manifest itself as ebook subscriptions, special retail distribution using vendor-managed inventory, or the creation or purchase of marketing channels for its exclusive use — or all of the above and more — will be one of the most important things to watch in 2014.

5. The financial reports from big publishers in 2013 have been mostly encouraging. It looks like the shift to ebooks has had the impact of improving publisher margins and profitability. But can those good times last? Publishers now face a world where there is a single dominant bricks-and-mortar retailer, a single dominant internet retailer, and, as noted above, a single dominant publisher. Agents want to keep competition alive, so they’re going to be sensitive about pushing the Following Four too hard or allowing too quick a migration of authors to the industry leader, but the retailers won’t be so accommodating. Another pressure point on margins will be ebook pricing. It has been driven down by successful self-publishing and the the court’s elimination of agency as a protection. Now big publishers have discovered “dynamic pricing” — lowering prices on a book temporarily to spike sales and awareness — adding their own activity to the list of forces reducing margins. Both the top line and the bottom line will be harder to maintain in 2014, but how it will turn out is an open question. After all, most of these things were true in 2013 and margins still improved.

6. Literary agents have been dabbling with publishing for the past several years since ebooks and POD have made it possible to do it without inventory or an organization. Agencies have started publishing operations (E-Reads, Diversion, Rosetta) and many more have brought on the expertise to give authors help with digital services (Curtis Brown, Writer’s House). Publishers have expanded into author services with speaker’s bureaux, but, so far, none has thought to add literary agenting services except for the time-honored practices of selling rights (foreign, paperback, book club), which was part of their publishing process. Might a publisher either create or ally with a literary agency to create a way to “own” an author’s entire career? If one tried this in 2014, it wouldn’t come as a total surprise.

7. Simon & Schuster has made a number of pioneering deals for a publisher of its size. They offered print distribution service to bestselling indie author John Locke. Then they made a print-only deal — which the big houses pretty much said “we will never do” — with another indie with a hit, Hugh Howey. Now they’ve extended an idea they started a few years ago and signed a deal to give Yankee shortstop and icon Derek Jeter an imprint to be a publisher. Jeter has the ability to focus public attention on any book he wants (although certainly more with some topics than others) and he’s an articulate spokesperson with a strong personal following. S&S had done this in 2007 with 50-Cent; Hachette more recently gave an imprint to Chelsea Handler and HarperCollins gave one to Johnny Depp. Will celebrity imprints become a common idea? There will be plenty of attention paid to how Jeter’s initial efforts work. Or it may be that some other athlete or actor, musician or politician, will be the next experiment with this model. In any case, this is something else to watch in 2014.

8. It has been happening quietly but it has been happening: we increasingly have two separately-operating book businesses: Amazon’s and everybody else’s. This starts with the numbering system: Amazon uses its own ASINs, rather than depending on everybody else’s ISBNs. It extends to the titles available: Amazon has an untold number, but certainly hundreds of thousands, that it either publishes exclusively or which authors or small presses publish exclusively through them. And it has service offerings from Kindle Owners Lending Library to its recent Matchbook offer to pair ebook and print sales, which range from “extremely difficult” to “impossible” for any other publisher-retailer combination to match. How far can this go? Can Amazon create a closed world which is more profitable for an author or publisher than the whole world that includes everybody else? Or have they already?

9. And, in that same vein, we have what would seem to be an unsustainable dichotomy in the ebook marketplace as a result (I would say, editorializing here) of the Justice Department’s lack of understanding about where power really lies in the book business. Apple insists on “agency pricing”: publishers set prices, Apple keeps 30%. Amazon — for everybody except the former Big Six — insists on the wholesale model which gives them 50% of the publisher’s set price to divide as customer discount and margin as they choose. This has resulted in all publishers except the biggest being forced to put two prices on their ebooks: a “digital consumer retail” price (intended to be a selling price, for Apple, and lower) as well as a “list” price (intended for the retailer to discount, for Amazon, and higher). When the distinction began, the agency price couldn’t be discounted. Now it can so the only real differences are the margins and the hard-to-explain-or-justify publisher-set prices. Only the biggest publishers have the clout to overcome the marketplace power of Apple and Amazon to dictate how the sales structure will work. Everybody else lives in an Alice in Wonderland world. I’d expect something to give on this in 2014.

Many of these questions will be explicitly discussed at the biggest and best Digital Book World ever, coming up in less than two weeks. It has become the premier global gathering of book publishers talking about the impact of digital change. We’ve counted them up and there are 156 speakers and moderators on the 2-day DBW program, plus dozens more in DBW’s workshop program and the Publishers Launch Kids conference hosted by Michael Cader and me and programmed by Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International. You can’t spend that week with us without bumping into smart people who are getting great things done.

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Amazon might lose interest in total hegemony over the book business before they achieve it


The industry got the news that Amazon was probably reassessing its own publishing program a couple of weeks ago when it was announced that Laurence Kirshbaum was stepping down as the head of Amazon Publishing and being replaced by a 14-year veteran of the Seattle company, Daphne Durham. Whatever are Durham’s strengths and connections, they don’t include the familiarity with the New York publishing scene and agents that Kirshbaum brought.

While this certainly does not suggest an overall reduction in Amazon’s publishing activity, it does signal a change in tactics. It would appear that the unorganized but united stand by Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores to boycott Amazon-published titles and refuse to give them shelf space made it virtually impossible for Amazon’s publishing enterprise to compete with the big houses for brand name authors. The few that they tried — Penny Marshall and Timothy Ferriss wrote the high-profile titles that were watched — had disappointing results. Whether that was largely because the stores wouldn’t play along or for other reasons (not all books by famous authors or celebrities are equally edited or equally appealing), the overall environment did not leave agents or the authors everybody wants panting for an Amazon publishing deal.

Retreats — apparent or real — by Amazon are rare. (The last one we can recall is when they pulled the buy buttons from Macmillan titles in 2010 to protest agency pricing and very quickly rescinded the action.) But it would be a mistake to think either that Amazon is less interested in publishing than they were before or that the threat they pose to publishers’ relationships with authors is no longer something publishers need to concern themselves with.

In fact, all the recent evidence suggests that Amazon’s market share is still rising. The Bowker numbers reported at the end of July of 2012, trying to measure who got the Borders sales (which were 10% of the total when the retailer went out of business) put Amazon’s total share of the book market at 29%, up from 23% a year earlier. In that same report, it was reported that B&N had gained a point of share, up from 19% to 20%. So Amazon out-benefited B&N from Borders’ collapse by six to one.

Earlier this year, it was reported in Britain that Amazon had a whopping 79% of the burgeoning ebook market. That’s more than they have in the US. It is also apparently the case that Amazon has the lion’s share of the online book sales market in the UK (and, along with their subsidiary company The Book Depository, most of Europe and the English-speaking world).

The share of total sales that goes through their registers is only one measure of Amazon’s disruptive growth. They’re also signing up more and more books directly to their imprints (the genre publishing growth continues unabated and was never heavily dependent on Kirshbaum) and getting more and more books through authors self-publishing. And as they disintermediate publishers by bringing in books directly by either means, they also threaten their competitive retailers in all venues. Although you can be self-published through Amazon and continue to distribute to other channels, they offer financial incentives to discourage that.

In fact, Hugh Howey, the enormously successful self-publisher of “Wool”, told us a year ago that the decision to broaden his distribution base to include Nook and other platforms cost him money. He did it because he thought it was the fan-friendly thing to do but he’d have made more money on his ebook sales if he’d sold fewer units and given up the other formats.

(KDP Select is the program that demands exclusivity. By enrolling, authors get their works in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, increased royalties on sales outside the US, and access to additional promotional tools. You can still have your book on sale in physical, “or in any format other than digital”.)

We see Amazon growing into a large and slightly separate book industry of its own. They don’t use the book business’s standard ebook format, epub; they use their own format, mobi. (The Amazon “flavor” is AZW, and they also have the newer KF8.) They don’t care much whether a book has an industry standard ID, the ISBN number. Amazon assigns its own number, unless the publisher has a 10-digit ISBN they can use, which they call an ASIN. They own a must-optimize author page (Amazon’s author page affects an author’s discoverability on Google; the converse is not true) and a must-use book readers’ social network (GoodReads). They have their own print-on-demand operation making it simple for an author to set up both ebooks and print at the same time.

The “advantage” a publisher has pursuing authors is that they can offer a much broader distribution base as well as their honed skill at marketing and publicity. But there’s a price for that; self-publishing with Amazon brings an author four times the revenue for ebooks and somewhat more for every print copy sold as well. Whether Amazon is a quarter, a third, a half, or more of a book’s sale depends on the book, but authors will be increasingly facing the choice Hugh Howey faced: publish exclusively with Amazon and sell a bit less but make a bit more, or publish to a broader audience through a publisher (or on your own) and make less money. Apparently, many authors are doing 90-day runs of KDP Select to get a boost at Amazon, then switching back to broader distribution

Fortunately for the rest of the publishing business, the shift to ebooks and to online purchasing may have stalled. In the US, Amazon appears to have about 60-70% of the ebook business, and ebooks constitute about 30% of the total business. But the ebook share is much higher for immersive reading, higher still for fiction. For fiction, more than half the sales of many titles can be digital. And the print sales are anywhere from 25% to 35% online. So for fiction, Amazon may already be nearing half the total sales for many titles.

We wouldn’t expect the slowdown of the shift in sales to last. New offerings of ever-cheaper and more-flexible devices, more and more cheap ebooks in the market (discounting the backlist ebooks seems to be publishing’s latest most common marketing trick), and the natural growth in digital interaction as older people exit and younger people with new credit cards replace them, pretty much assure that the online sale will continue to grow in relation to the store sale. As that happens, as the 2012 measurements after the demise of Borders showed, Amazon experiences organic growth.

So, when does Amazon’s share growth stop? And who is left standing when it does? Here we have to enter a realm of pure speculation; there are no data points that can help us figure this out.

To answer these questions, we need to look at the book business in segments.

For narrative text, books that one reads from the first page to the last, we’d expect continuing growth of digital. For genre fiction (including YA), which has the additional characteristic of having audiences that consume many titles a year, we’d expect a lion’s share digital market — 80 percent or more — to be common within a couple of years. For those books, Amazon will continue to just eat away at the publishers’ position. More and more of the genre readers will migrate to them because they’ll have an increasing number of titles on an exclusive basis, more — and more aggressive – price promotion, and probably a variety of subscription opportunities. That should lead inexorably to more and more of the genre authors being willing to publish with them exclusively because they’ll be able to reach an increasingly large percentage of the reader base through digital and Amazon alone.

If I were looking for the first candidates not to be “left standing”, we’d expect to find them in genre publishing. In time, the big publishers will increasingly focus on “big” genre titles, rather than lengthy genre lists.

I also expect more DRM-free trials, particularly in genre fiction, so that publishers and third-parties can sell mobi files to existing Kindle customers. For while genres are where Amazon has their greatest potential strength, it is also true that genres are where publishers have the best chance at building brands and direct customer relationships that matter.

More general fiction and non-fiction will be read mostly in digital form in a short time too, although the hardcovers for those books will continue to exist. But for the big players in general trade, there’s another problem besides Amazon to deal with. That’s the new publishing behemoth: Penguin Random House. I would guess (all we can do) that by three or four years from now, the first choice for most authors will be either PRH or Amazon. PRH will provide the biggest reach; Amazon will often provide the biggest potential revenue. The other general trade houses will fight each other for the authors that don’t want to be part of either behemoth.

For illustrated books and children’s books, the environment will be different. Stores will remain important, but there will be fewer of them (and therefore fewer books of this kind published). The bookstore I’d imagine in several years will have far more illustrated and gift books in it as a percentage of the total title mix than it does now.

What I think will save publishers from disappearing, oddly enough, will be a loss of interest at Amazon in taking more market share. This conclusion comes from a combination of something I learned from people at Google about Google and what is clear from Stone’s book.

Last spring, I visited a Google installation that was not about the book business, but about an online game. The game is a big online experiment in engagement. Googlers showing us around were thinking about the revenue potential of the game, which was not supposed to be their primary concern. They had come to the conclusion that $100 million in annual revenue would be achievable, but they didn’t think they’d be able to go after it. Why? Because nobody in a responsible position at Google would take ownership of something as small as $100 million in revenue.

Brad Stone paints a picture in “The Everything Store” of Amazon as, above all, a highly rational company. Jeff Bezos can be impetuous, but he’s not nuts. He is zealous about the things he cares about because he believes they matter: customer happiness being number one on the list. As the book business becomes a smaller and smaller part of the total Amazon picture and the challenges that matter to the business revolve around delivering your fresh produce in 30 minutes, not 90, it is likely that Amazon will have less and less interest in squeezing just a little bit more margin out of the book business. There will be easier places and easier ways to make money.

Amazon achieved the position it has in the book ecosystem through a combination of brilliance, execution, natural forces, and some good luck but, above all, focus. It had to take some big chances with pricing and margin to get where it has gotten, but that’s not really necessary anymore. Doing some very logical and natural things, like the new Matchbook program and rolling out more subscription and pricing offerings (like their new “Countdown Clock” discounts for new Kindle titles) will keep their share growing and their competitors scrambling. They will also almost certainly be coming after publishers for more margin (as will their equally dominant counterparts on the store side, Barnes & Noble), but it would seem unlikely that they’ll see the need to extend themselves to sign up authors or build out their ability to distribute print to other people’s stores.

Amazon will certainly continue to make it difficult for publishers to use price offers as a way of teasing away some of the direct ebook business. Publishers are finding that increasingly tempting as more and more vendors emerge who can solve the tech challenges for them. But even with publishers taking some ebook share directly, and more of them will, chances are that the ebook business will grow faster than the publishers’ shares and that Amazon’s growth, partly at the expense of other ecosystems, will not stop.

So the good news for publishers is that the business they now have will look less and less appealing compared to other worlds Amazon might conquer. That should save them from having a bulls-eye on their backs, but it will remain a very challenging environment where their biggest customer is the most powerful force in the marketplace and growth outside that customer is harder and harder to achieve. The publishing activities of Amazon will continue to get bigger; the industry of other publishers will continue to get smaller. But we are probably in for a period of slow and steady shifts rather than cataclysms.

As long as Barnes & Noble can stay healthy and the other ebook platforms aren’t crushed by losing titles to Kindle exclusives, that will remain the case. And that means “for quite a while” but not “forever”.

Remember that Brad Stone will be joined onstage by analyst Benedict Evans and publishing sage Joseph J. Esposito for a wide-ranging discussion about Amazon at Digital Book World in January.

Note that I also posted on Amazon yesterday. That piece describes three important pieces of their story that didn’t make it into Stone’s book.

And, if you’re from a start-up or your job at a publisher includes meeting with and evaluating start-ups, we really want your response to our survey, which will inform our dialogue about start-ups at Digital Book World.

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No-inventory publishing changes everything for everybody and nobody will escape making adjustments


A somewhat overwrought article in Wired calling ebooks an “abomination” because they “price people out of reading” provokes thinking about how much the business models for the trade book business are changing. The article’s weakness stems from its focus on the pricing decisions publishers are making in selling print and ebooks to libraries when those changes are taking place in a larger and indivisible context. The industry is finding less and less uniting what it has been for the past 70 years, since the end of World War II and the advent of paperbacks, and what it will be in a future that is already being disruptive but not necessarily clear.

This is reflected on a micro level in a discussion that arose at our Marketing Conference last week from a question asking “what is a book”? That question used to have a physical answer which described an object, not necessarily describing what content it contained. We’re getting away pretty fast from requiring a book to be printed and bound; the words of an author feel no less real or worthy to many of us coming from a screen. Screen delivery is also relieving the need for a book to have any minimum length, which printed books transacted individually require for physical (we want them thick enough to bind with a spine) and commercial (selling and tracking an individual item practically requires a minimum price) reasons.

I think the questioner in this case was also trying to pull us into a disussion of video, audio, interaction, and linking, which I resist for two reasons. One is that, so far, the preponderence of ebooks that have sold any appreciable quantities have not had any of those attributes. They’re just the same words as in the printed books made reflowable for a screen. The second is that my world is the world of book publishing. My belief is that if books were to become something heavily dependent on video and audio, they won’t be made by people who today are book publishers. They’ll be made by movie studios and animation houses and digital game creators. In that case, discussion of them belongs on some other blog.

Restricting one’s thinking to assume that the future of books encompass only digital versions of what has existed as a book for the past several hundred years doesn’t, by itself, make the future clear. The changes in business models and in the configuration of the industry provide plenty of potential variation that, from my perspective, is more useful (and more fun) to think about than trying to redefine the book itself.

One of the things that has characterized books for me is the incredible diversity of markets they reach. Trade publishing has always had remarkably low barriers to entry compared to other media. It has always been easier to publish a book and make it work on some level than to launch a newspaper or a magazine, or make a movie or a TV show or a record. It costs less and the distribution channels have always been relatively democratic and accessible to outsiders. The cash comes back slowly, and profits are often elusive, but you don’t need a fortune to publish a book.

Because books inherently require a small number of sales to make money (the breakeven point gets raised by big advances to authors, but, if the author guarantee is low, most books will recover core production costs on the sale of a few thousand copies and, in some cases, less than that), they frequently target what any other industry would consider mini-markets. A publisher that mines a niche can profit on something incredibly esoteric. For example, the chances are that Osprey, a military history publisher, has made money on books about wars you’ve never heard of. But their audience has and, because they know their audience, everybody wins.

The giant general trade publishers have built big and expensive machines that can make a book a mass sensation and put it in front of the public in a big way. Other publishers have pursued other models. HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster might pay big money to an author and build an organization that can maximize marketing impact on pub date. Other companies have specialized in a market like craft books or art books or computer books, not paying the same advances and necessarily having a different emphasis in their distribution and marketing strategies.

But what has united all the business models was the commitment to make and market a book, which meant printing inventory. The minimum investment to publish a book was much less than the minimum investment to publish a magazine or a newspaper or to make a film or a record. But there still was an investment.

And that brings us back to something that made books special for their authors: the prestige conferred by somebody (preferably somebody highly professional with a brand name like some publishers have) making a unique investment in their content. That’s an investment that’s not sold as part of a magazine, or on the back of a star’s name, but in one person’s work: the author’s. When the subject of what a book was came up at our conference, one observation from a publisher of books about public affairs was how much the speaking fees of their authors went up when a book of theirs was published. The mere fact of the book conferred credibility on the author that raised their value in the marketplace, regardless of how the book sold. (Or didn’t.)

This is something inherent to the definition of a “book”. This is, also, likely to change.

The core change in publishing economics that will ultimately change the shape of the commercial industry is that the already-low investment required to publish a book has plummeted even further. As printed books become less important, then the investment required to fund them becomes less important too. Already we have seen many authors — I’ve written about John Locke and hosted Hugh Howey on the Digital Book World stage, but there are scores of others — build a career as an author without any significant print sales. We have seen other authors with long backlists, some who had only achieved modest success for publishers, turning the opportunity for higher margins and direct audience contact into financial bonanzas in digital publishing.

Repeated demonstration of the fact that it is totally possible to achieve fame and fortune as a writer without a publisher does not escape the attention of any author. Many literary agencies, the players closest to the hopes and aspirations of narrative text book authors, have been gearing up to provide digital services, primarily at first for established authors who want to self-publish their backlists. But by doing this they also create leverage for their authors in their negotiations for bigger advances and better terms from publishers, and they stamp themselves as able to continue to serve an author who decides publishers are no longer for him or her.

That means that publishers, who would theoretically always have been interested in maximizing a book’s revenue for the author and themselves, are goaded more than ever to do so. That in turn means every aspect of the business model gets questioned. Are library ebooks cannibalizing the sales of ebooks from stores? Might they? The question has to be asked. Does the fact that ebooks don’t wear out with repeated lending, as printed books do, require some different policy to make a library pony up again for frequently-loaned book? (HarperCollins has introduced such a policy.) Should a library that uses its copy of an ebook to satisfy many readers pay more than an ebook reader who has practical (and contractual) barriers to sharing? (Random House is trying this.) While some authors are asking themselves whether publishers are essential for them anymore, which makes sense, doesn’t it also make sense for publishers to be thinking hard about how the digital revolution might change their relationship with libraries?

In fact, nobody in the value chain in between the author and the reader of a book can be complacent about their position: not the agent or publisher or library, but also, quite obviously, not the bookstore, online or physical. The printer and warehouse operator must expect a shrinking share of the book business. No-inventory publishing, by lowering the barriers to entry for a written book of narrative text nearly to zero, is assuring that an ecosystem built around the reality that book inventory was the industry’s greatest cost will change profoundly.

The assertion that ebooks are making books less affordable to most people is total hogwash. For every book not available to be lent as an ebook by a library, there are probably ten from established publishers that are half the price they were before, to the consumer and to the library. And there are countless others which would not have been published before available directly from authors, which their sales tell us are valued by many readers, that are dirt cheap, priced less than the commercial transaction system for print could even consider. And the books the author of the complaining article wrote about that come with higher prices or some sort of other licensing restrictions as ebooks, are still (at least for now) still available in print at the long-traditional prices and terms.

We’re going to see marketing departments of publishers expand and sales departments contract as book distribution patterns change. We’re going to see more and more commercially viable titles launched with a no- or little-inventory-in-place model, starting with ebooks and print-on-demand availability as a low-risk launch strategy. We’re going to see books launched as serials, growing to a length determined by audience response, not based on a pre-publication plan. We’re going to see booksellers and libraries publishing and publishers building on book audiences to sell other things. And we’re going to see more and more virtual sources of books for consumers: publishers selling direct, of course, but also did you notice that Tesco is now in the game?

We’re going to see a lot of change as players of all sizes, in all parts of the publishing value chain, adjust to the “weightlessness” of a business shedding and shifting its biggest capital requirement: inventory cost. Picking on one tactic or another by one player or another, particularly from the perspective of preserving legacy behavior, is not likely to be very illuminating or helpful. The ability to put a book into the marketplace in a way that can reach more than half its audience with no inventory investment, making it possible to sell books and rights globally and only later, if it is warranted, put a bigger bet down on the book — combined with the increasing number of entities that have knowledge that could inform content and direct contact with a real market — is going to be transformative. Everybody in the chain but the author and the reader are fighting for their lives.

Smart publishers recognize that they have to completely rethink their business models and propositions in a no-inventory publishing world. Authors and agents are doing the same thing. So are many bookstores and libraries. The players in the publishing ecosystem who don’t rethink their business practices in fundamental ways will probably be relieved of the burden of thinking about them at all before long.

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Anybody Press is the new member of the Big Six (for ebooks, at least)


Bowker reported last week that 12% of the ebooks being bought now are self-published. There was skepticism about the methodology from The Digital Reader and Good e-Reader says Bowker’s data should be taken “with a grain of salt”. But the exact number doesn’t matter; the trend does. The share of the consumer ebook dollar going to books that aren’t coming from publishing entities means that the new Big Six for ebooks are the ones we know well — Penguin Random House and the four (HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan) that among them add up to about their size — plus Anybody Press.

And Anybody Press is almost certainly growing faster in ebook sales than any of the other Big Six.

This is happening almost solely with individual authors and still mostly with authors who are not in demand by the commercial publishers. Although it does happen that authors turn down their next deal to self- or unconventionally-publish (which publishing with an Amazon imprint, even under advance-against-royalty terms, still is because there’s to date no effective retail distribution), it’s still rare for that to happen.

The self-publishing or Amazon-publishing route still requires pretty much giving up on bookstore or other retail distribution. (Or so it has seemed. The news that Amazon has sold a million of “The Hangman’s Daughter”, an unknown number through the paperback licensed to Houghton Harcourt, may be contradicting that notion. Except we don’t know how many Houghton Harcourt has sold.) But the ebook royalties are higher, so it is a balance that deserves, and gets, constant review by agents and authors as the share of sales through bookstore or other retail distribution continues to decline.

If I were the business development manager for Anybody Press (and, on some consulting projects we are working on, I am) I would see lots of target markets for growth. I’d encourage my targets to keep doing the calculation of what the sales times royalty rate is for the “bought online” portion of the market versus what the sales times royalty rate is for a conventional deal that gets you the “whole” market. As the “bought online” share grows, more and more genres and authors will find that giving up the retail sale in favor of a bigger share of the revenue per sale online is to their financial benefit.

And the way things are developing — “Hangman’s Daughter” aside — you might not have to give up the store sale forever.

The “Wool” deal, where Hugh Howey sold only print rights to Simon & Schuster, hasn’t really been replicated yet for anything else that big, but it will be. (Successful indie authors John Locke and Bella Andre have done different versions of the same trick.) Royalty rates on ebooks from big publishers are bound to go up (while royalty rates for print books will probably go down). These will change the details of the calculations as they transpire.

Another way to make the jump from purely online sales to a publication strategy that includes print in stores is to use print-on-demand technology from Ingram’s Lightning Source. That’s how Open Road, which began life as an opportunistic ebook-only publisher, has chosen to manage print beyond Amazon. As has Byliner. (You can always deliver print with Amazon by working through their CreateSpace capability.) Now, that’s not the same as being published with an advance sale in the stores on pub date, but it does mean that if somebody walks into a Barnes & Noble or an indie bookstores and asks for your book, they’ll be able to order it for delivery in a day or two.

So aside from the market share fight big publishers will have with each other, there’s going to be a continuing market share fight between Anybody Press and the commercial industry. And for some time to come, Anybody Press is going to be winning. The question, like the question about online (and Amazon) market share growth is: where does it stop?

Big publishers do have ways to fight back. Putting together our upcoming (September 26) Marketing Conference with Peter McCarthy, who used to plot digital marketing strategy for Random House, I’m learning what can be accomplished when scaled technology and expertise are employed by engaged title-and-audience knowledge. And, particularly viewed in a global context and aside from straight narrative books, the print-at-retail component has a long way to go before it becomes irrelevant. But when I say that, I mean “many years”, not “many decades”.

This amorphous but growing competition is the “atomization” concept I wrote about recently in action. It can’t be neglected in the consideration of any branch of publishing’s future. In fact, indie entities, which is the way I think about atomization, are more likely to be disruptive on a larger scale than indie authors have been so far. So we might have Any Organization Press growing even faster in the next few years than Anybody Press has for the past few.

What people spend for books won’t necessarily shrink drastically, but where the money goes will shift drastically. The challenge for today’s leading revenue producers will be to find the ways their business models can adapt to the shift.

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Unbundling in the book business: the fourth big trend


A few weeks ago, I wrote that there are three big forces driving the future of publishing: scale, verticalization, and atomization.

I was wrong. I had forgotten my own blogpost from last September when I identified another trend that belongs with the first three: “unbundling”. The book business, in the trade segment I follow most closely but in every other segment as well, is seeing its value proposition becoming unbundled in a number of ways.

Up until very recently, a trade publisher controlled just about every aspect of a book’s publication. The indispensible parts of the value publishers offered were two: the advance against royalties that often provided essential financing to enable the writer to create the manuscript and the network of relationships and infrastructure that put books on shelves for consumers to find and buy them.

Because the publisher was taking both a capital and reputational risk with every book published, it was natural that it would handle all the supporting steps: developmental and copy-editing, marketing and publicity, design and manufacturing. The publisher would commission the artwork for the book’s cover and determine what was the best foot forward on flap copy.

Until the turn of the 21st century, it was the exceptional author who had any kind of “platform” that could be employed for the book’s marketing: something like a TV show or newspaper column or fame achieved some other way that could be a springboard for promoting the book. In the cases where those opportunities existed, publishers recognized that the book was being “piggybacked” onto something that had its own commercial purpose and was not subject to the wishes or timetables of a book’s publisher.

What changed before the publishing business changed is that many of us have some sort of platform now, as in “a way to reach an audience”. And, although my platform isn’t comparable to Rush Limbaugh’s or Jay Leno’s, it is, indeed, mine all mine and I can do what I want with it. Many other people have platforms of their own that are far more powerful than mine.

It could be said that publishers themselves began the unbundling process as they got authors to use their platforms to market their books. With the advent of ebooks and driven by the CreateSpace services offered by Amazon, it became possible for any author to publish his or her own book and those with a platform, or even just building one, no longer had to get the assent of a publisher to put their book into the market.

My friend, futurist David Houle (whose new book “Entering the Shift Age” has been published by Sourcebooks), was frustrated in 2007 with his inability to connect with a publisher for his predictive thinking. He was just starting his blog, “Evolution Shift” and it didn’t have enough history or audience to persuade any publisher he found to put out his companion book, “The Shift Age”. So he did it himself, through Amazon, even before there was a Kindle. Over the years, David has sold about 7,000 copies of his book, many through Amazon but many more through his own public appearances as a speaker. (And what he’s made per copy is far more than what he’d have made in a publishing deal.)

Since Houle published “The Shift Age” several years ago, an industry has grown around offering services for publishing. This is referred to as the “author services” business. The core offerings are to take the creator’s file (in Word or InDesign) and make it accessible in various ebook formats at the front end and then to interact with ebook retailers (delivering the file and capturing the sales information and the revenue) at the other end. The services offered by the retailers themselves (and you can get this help from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) don’t push the ebook out to other ebook retailers. Amazon is the only one to offer a companion print option.

The first mover on these services in the ebook age outside the retailers was Smashwords. They’ve been joined by a host of others. Author Solutions, acquired about a year ago by Penguin, rolled up a number of companies that offered these services in the print-only world that existed before Kindle. They have all come to recognize that publishers provide more than the essential services at each end of the publishing process; they also provide editing and packaging and marketing services in the middle. So these have popped up as discrete offerings — “unbundled” — both through the complete service providers and as stand-alones.

Now there’s an aggregator of the stand-alone service providers, BiblioCrunch, which features a host of freelancers that any author can access. Another fledgling, NetMinds, which has made some news lately by publishing Nolan Bushnell’s book, makes provision of expert services in many categories a part of its model.

This unbundling effect plays out in interesting ways. When Hugh Howey sold the rights to his smash success “Wool” to Random House UK (before he had a US publisher), they worked with Howey and did some editing, including creating an additional chapter, for their edition. Howey took that component of Random House’s work and was able to make it available for the print edition he licensed in the US to Simon & Schuster and then incorporated it into the ebook version he sold himself.

All of this evidence that the publishers’ proposition is being unbundled leads to two strategic observations.

As the services game shifts from “authors” to “entities” (what I call atomization and of which there are new examples just about every single day), there is a critical job description missing from the service offerings. That job is “publisher”. The publisher makes the overall decisions about the editorial, production, and marketing resources that are committed to each book.

In the author services environment, this role can often be useful but would not be missed in many circumstances. There is no “what to publish” decision; the author has a book. There are very limited “resource allocation” decisions because the available resources to allocate are the author’s own.

But as entities of all kind take over from authors as the primary providers of books outside the industry itself, the role of publisher becomes critical. Decisions will need to be made.

There are 26 categories of helper available in BiblioCrunch. “Publisher” is not one of them.

I met last week in Los Angeles with a team of producers and development executives who are acting on an idea I have pushed: that Hollywood can become an important center for fiction book publishing. They have a core resource of thousands of great stories developed in the hopes that they will become a movie that ultimately doesn’t get funded, or as they say out there, “green-lighted”. This team has over 100 projects that are candidates for their book publishing efforts, but they can’t just “do them all”. They have to set up a company, pay to turn scripts into novels (or, at least, narrative stories), and put them into ebook and probably also print book formats. So, they asked me, which ones would you do first?

I said, “I wouldn’t ask me. I’d ask a publisher.” I named two very good and experienced ones immediately who are currently unemployed. These people have vast experience with all the decisions that are required: which stories are most saleable as books, what length the books should be, what style they should be written in, and how they should be titled, packaged, and promoted.

This necessity is even more evident when one thinks about non-fiction entities that might become publishers. If every museum, library, and department of a university is “a publisher waiting to happen” (and I believe all of them are), how could any of them proceed without a publisher?

If you were trying to get a museum started on becoming a book publisher, you’d begin with a discovery process that asked key questions. Who comes to the museum and what do you know about them? Who comes to the museum’s web site and what do you know about them? What IP do you already own that could be publishable as books? What good IP could you lay your hands on if you would publish it as a book? What is your relationship to sources of IP and marketing, like academic institutions, not-for-profits, or other museums? If you asked supporters of your museum for money to fund a publishing program, would they give it to you?

What the publishing program should be in response to the answers to those questions is something only a publisher has real experience figuring out. The publisher is the first service the entity needs. Renting a publisher takes precedence over renting an editor or a cover artist.

Ingram Publisher Services had a great success with a wildly expensive ($625) cookbook series (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking) created by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive. Perhaps lost in the reporting of that story is the fact that Myhrvold’s first stop was to engage Bruce Harris, the former Publisher of Harmony Books and a former Random House sales executive. Harris has “publisher” in his DNA, and he undoubtedly shaped key decisions, probably including engaging Ingram in the first place, let alone directing their activites, that were instrumental to the success of the project.

So the first strategic point is that hiring all the services without hiring a publisher is like having a football team without a quarterback.

The second strategic observation is that the industry itself, but particularly the trade component of it, is also being unbundled. Disparate efforts that bookstores aggregated and welded together are now coming apart.

Here I’m not thinking about the value chain for each book, which is overseen by the publisher, but the value chain for the industry, which includes the supply chain. Although there have always been some vertical bookstores — in New York City until a few years ago they ranged from specialists in architecture to specialists in mysteries — most books were sold in general bookstores that sold everything. As publishers are forced to reach readers in different ways than they used to, the subject of a book, and the consistency of audience appeal within a publisher’s list, becomes a key to its marketing in ways it never was.

But ebooks are creating another distinction, between books that are meant to be read from start to finish and all other books: art books, illustrated instruction, references, and compendia. Narrative writing, particularly fiction, works as ebooks. The others don’t. That increasingly encourages publishers who depend primarily on narrative reading to stick to it and to not publish books of other kinds.

It is also creating a differentiated distribution problem for publishers, depending on their output. Publishers of novels and narrative non-fiction are seeing the decline in their print book sales compensated for by increases in their ebook sales. They have a new challenge reaching the audiences and making them aware of their books, but their problem isn’t exacerbated by the format change. Many of their readers simply switch over from print to digital on whatever device they want to use and one-color straight text printing enables reducing the print runs without costs getting completely out of line.

But that’s not true for publishers of other books. As bookstores close and readers switch to digital formats, they face existential questions. They can’t suffer the print run reductions readily. They can’t just make a digital version by copying the print. And, if they did, it won’t sell.

Some illustrated book publishers have robust distribution outside the bookstores, to museums or gift shops, for example. In some cases, the book trade was already a diminishing share of their business before the ebook revolution happened.

But the impact of digital change on publishers that used to all depend together on a healthy bookstore network is very highly variable. Their fates were joined. They’re now being unbundled.

Although the organizing theme of our Pub Launch BEA conference is “scale”, the other trends definitely get their moment. Ken Michaels of Hachette will talk about tools his company has developed that are being unbundled and delivered as services to other publishers. And the particular challenge of the illustrated book publishers as they lose the ability to piggyback on bestseller traffic in bookstores is the subject of the final chunk of the day’s programming. First, Ron Martinez of Aerbook will survey the new tools available to make putting an illustrated book into digital form cheaper and more effective. Then a panel of illustrated book publishers — Joseph Craven (Quarto Group), Tim Greco (Dorling Kindersley), Lindy Humphreys (Abrams), and Mary Ann Naples (Rodale) – will talk about how they are adjusting to the new retailing environment unbundling is creating in a panel discussion moderated by former Crown Illustrated publisher Lauren Shakely.

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